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Vietnamese province holds fast to plan to build controversial cable car in cave kingdom

By Staff reporters   November 1, 2017 | 01:01 pm GMT+7
Vietnamese province holds fast to plan to build controversial cable car in cave kingdom
A view of the campsite inside En Cave at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Photo by Michael Tatarski

A Quang Binh official claims the public support the plan, but stops short of who or how many people have been surveyed.

Failure to build a cable car in Vietnam's UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park would be tantamount to a "waste of natural resources", hampering local tourism and economic growth, a provincial official told a parliamentary session Tuesday.

Tran Cong Thuan, the deputy chief of Quang Binh's Communist Party unit, said at an ongoing session of the legislative National Assembly that the central province would need the government’s backing to materialize a tourism development plan that includes building a controversial cable car project through its world-renowned cave kingdom.

Authorities in Quang Binh floated their plan to build the cable car system across Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which UNESCO recognized as a global heritage site in 2003, at a meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in August.

Phuc said at that time that although the idea has raised widespread eyebrows, he and government agencies “agree in principle” with the plan. He said the project must “not interfere with the heritage site nor be overexploited”, asking the culture and tourism ministry to assess the project's possible impacts and consult UNESCO on the matter.

The cable car system is set to run 5.2 kilometers (3.2 miles) from a section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway to En (Swallow) Cave, which was catapulted to global fame when it was aired live on U.S. talk show Good Morning America in May 2015.

En Cave, a feeder to the world's largest cave Son Doong, stretches 1,645 meters (5,397 feet) into the mountain and has been named one of the most captivating caves on earth by National Geographic. It is also believed to be the world’s third largest cave, according to CNN

Supporters of the cable car say it will make it easier for tourists to explore the cave, giving local tourism a much-needed boost that would increase revenues and create jobs. They also say it affords opportunities for the elderly and disabled to visit more remote beauty spots.

But those in the opposing camp say that the proposal's much-touted benefits could pale in comparison to its possible drawbacks.

On Tuesday, Thuan, the Quang Binh official, was adamant that the idea has received widespread public support.

“A majority of the public agree with the plan and believe that it will help local tourism,” he said, without providing details on who or how many people have been surveyed.

Quang Binh has adequate conditions and legal foundations for sustainable tourism development, but it needs the government’s approval, he said.

“Some people have expressed concerns that the cable car will affect the park's environment without looking at relevant data,” he said.

Phong Nha – Ke Bang is home to over 300 caves and grottoes that date back some 400 million years. Around 30 caves are now open to visitors, which has created a tourism boom and lifted the poor, war-torn province.

As the park is a "valuable" tourism asset, “if we do not develop it effectively, it would be a waste of natural resources,” Thuan told legislators.

But conservationists are not buying into this.

Tim Doling, a British author who has studied Vietnam’s history and tourism extensively, interpreted Thuan's message in a different way: "In other words, let's extract the maximum profit from this natural wonder while we can." 

In Vietnam, the idea of building a huge infrastructure project designed to draw as many visitors as possible to a carefully protected ecological wonder has not gone down well with conservationists.

Quang Binh's steadfast plan to forge ahead with construction of the cable car is just emblematic of how economic interests all too often dwarf limited environmental safeguards in a country where local leaders are judged chiefly by how much their cities have grown, regardless of whether it is sustainable, conservationists say.

The cable car debate in Quang Binh started in 2014 when the province announced plans to build a $212-million gondola lift into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, also inside Phong Nha-Ke Bang.

Widespread opposition, including an online petition signed by thousands of people and concerns raised by UNESCO, eventually prompted the government to ask the province to scrap the project. The government also guaranteed at the time that no construction will take place in the entire cave system until at least 2030.

Cable cars have created controversy across Vietnam with people arguing that the country is sacrificing nature for tourism.

Elsewhere in the world, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is standard practice to carry out a full environmental assessment before the construction of a cable car can start at a natural heritage site.

This ensures that they are built only in the least ecologically vulnerable areas with a design that is sensitive to the environment. It also imposes strict regulations about wastewater during both construction and operation.

“As there is so little transparency here about the way in which these cable cars are built and operated, it's very difficult to know if such procedures are applied in Vietnam,” Doling said.

A 2015 report by Pact, an international environmental group, pointed to a raft of loopholes that have plagued Vietnam’s environmental assessment, marginalizing the masses in the decision-making process for public projects that otherwise directly affect their lives. 

"The overwhelming body of expert scientific opinion has recommended unequivocally against building a cable car into the caves," Doling said.

"Time and time again, they've pointed out that scaling tourism sustainably and maintaining the caves purely as an adventure tourism destination is the only way to minimize human damage on the cave's fragile ecosystem," he said.

"A cable car will potentially increase visitor numbers to 600 people per day and we all know the immense damage that will inflict upon the environment."